I don’t know which is stranger: that my azaleas bloom in June or that the soil anchoring their shallow roots is black, rich, and humusy.Having spent my childhood years in Atlanta where flowering begins in March and the earth is red and rusty, I still find these small details jarring. Even after twenty five springs north of the Mason Dixon line I am still not accustomed to this. Transplanting is funny business.
Each spring I ache in a small place I can’t name. It’s not simply that slogging through March, April and a piece of May makes me long for a the landscape of my childhood. It’s the realization that my children and I do not share nature cues, those deeply embedded sensory memories thatevoke home once we’re grown and gone.For them, spring wafts in on crab apple breezes cool with morning. I snip lilac branches and put them into nightstand vases to scent their dreams. When they were little, they played “Catch the Helicopters” as maple seedlings spiraled to earth. Magnolia blossoms? Honeysuckle nectar?Fuggeddaboutit. Nature has imprinted my children with a different beauty, different cues for home.
I occasionally hear my kids slip in a “ya’ll” when calling out to their friends, but more often it’s “you guys.” Their A’s are flat as Redwing hockey ice. When they were toddlers, they’d say, “Daddy help me with my pajamas.” and I would cringe. “Daddy” squeezed from their vocal cords as “Deeaddy”. Ditto “p’jeeamas.”My children sometimes sound like strangers to me. Where are their drawls? I taught them to speak, but their ears have found other accents to mime.
How can I imbue my children with a sense of the South when we only visit once a year? Especially since we usually visit in December? The South means swinging with their aunt and uncle in the backyard hammock. It’s pine straw fights and hearing their grandpa say, “C’mere bubba, gimme some sugar.” It’s going coatless in winter and seeing velvety pansies planted by an intrepid gardener, but not camellias, not gardenias.
In his terrific memoir The Provincials, transplanted Southerner Eli Evans recounts his son’s birth in a New York University Hospital delivery room. In one hand he held his wife’s hand. In the other, a fistful of North Carolina soil, “scooped from the UNC campus…because the truth was I wanted my son to know his roots.”
Darn! I wish I’d thought of that. But UNC dirt or no, I’d lay a bet Evans’ son, born and bred in Manhattan, nevertheless stands on line not in line. It’s hard this passing on the sense of place. We can do the big stuff. Religion. Ethics. And I suppose that’s more important. But it’s the little things that make us who we are. That root us in place.
Yet I have hope. By sheer luck and the yearning of the Southerner who owned our house before us, two dogwoods bloom outside my daughter’s bedroom window: one pink, one white. Over the decade and a half we have lived in this house we’ve watched them grow until they are nearly as high as the attic. Each spring those dogwoods are the first thing my daughter sees upon awakening and the last thing she sees before dreaming. My husband and I once toyed with moving to another neighborhood. “We can’t!” Emma wailed. “What about my dogwoods? I wait for them every spring.”
My daughter, who adores snow, whose accent holds no trace of Georgia red clay, who has never bitten off the green bulb end of a honey suckle flower to drink a drop of its sweet nectar, nevertheless waits for the dogwoods to bloom.It matters little that her inner clock has patience for June while her mother’s is ready in March. Emma waits for dogwoods. That is enough for me.
Long ago I promised myself that if she were to settle somewhere in the North and bless me with a granddaughter, I’d plant a dogwood outside the infant’s window.And should my daughter settle in a land alien to us both, somewhere like Montana or Washington state, I imagine we’ll both be out in the garden — I with a dogwood, and she with a lilac, rooting into the earth not just flowering trees for springtime delight, but the essence of our childhoods as well.
Emma is no longer at home when the dogwoods outside her window bloom. So I call and tell her when her blossoms unfurl, each one a four-petaled reminder of earlier days.